Harrison County

‘They should step up.’ Coast officials to ask for state money to deal with mental health crisis.

‘Very disappointed.’ Gulfport police chief shocked by financial crisis at Gulf Coast Mental Health

Gulfport Police Chief Leonard Papania said he was shocked to learn about the financial crisis that almost led to Gulf Coast Mental Health shutting down until the state decided to step in.
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Gulfport Police Chief Leonard Papania said he was shocked to learn about the financial crisis that almost led to Gulf Coast Mental Health shutting down until the state decided to step in.

South Mississippi needs funding to help uninsured and underinsured mentally ill patients stuck in jails and hospital emergency rooms while they wait for treatment, say people who deal with the problem daily.

“We are in a crisis and immediate assistance is required,” says a draft letter being prepared for state legislators by Harrison County hospitals, law enforcement, court, political and mental health communities in Harrison County. “We request your support to stabilize this crisis as we move forward with a solution.”

The letter is attached to an email from Memorial Hospital at Gulfport CEO Kent Nicaud. Nicaud asks recipients to share their thoughts so a final letter can be drafted and sent to state legislators.

The Sun Herald requested an interview with Nicaud on the crisis and potential solutions, but Memorial’s communication manager, Janet Stuart, said the letter is in draft form and Nicaud was unavailable Friday.

He said he would be happy to speak with you in the future once the letter is agreed upon,” her email response said.

The draft letter says mental health care falls short in serving the uninsured and underinsured, including adults 19-64 years old who fall into the Medicaid coverage gap.

Despite a population of 206,650, Harrison County has only 11 beds designated for individuals experiencing mental health problems serious enough to warrant commitment, with three beds for Hancock, one for Stone and one for Pearl River. The four counties comprise one of the state’s 15 community mental health regions.

Harrison County’s three hospitals had 4,157 patients show up in their emergency rooms in 2018 with symptoms of mental illness, with 222 psychiatric patient transfers per month.

The letter also points out that corrective action is being taken to keep the doors open at Gulf Coast Mental Health, the region’s agency and operator of the crisis stabilization beds.

Access to services remains an impediment for adults in the Medicaid gap. Mississippi is one of 14 states that opted out of Medicaid expansion under Obamacare.

In the GCMH region, a Mental Health Initiative Group is working on improving services. Harrison County’s three hospitals belong to the group, as do mental health care providers, the city of Gulfport, county supervisors, the Mental Health Association of South Mississippi, American Medical Response ambulance service and all six law enforcement agencies.

Under the preliminary proposal, hospital emergency departments would initially assess and stabilize patients, with AMR transporting them to partner psychiatric facilities.

Gulfport Councilman Rusty Walker, a member of the health initiative, said he thinks the region would need up to $3.5 million a year from the state to cover patient transport and treatment costs.

“It requires funding and we think the state should provide that funding,” Walker said. “They’re the ones who have removed beds and services and we think they should step up and handle it.”

Nicaud is asking these groups for input and sign off on a final letter for legislators.

“By delaying services, the mental health community will experience crisis causing them to spend numerous days in our hospital’s emergency rooms or a jail cell . . . where their needs cannot be addressed appropriately,” the draft letter says.

The draft letter also points out the U.S. Justice Department is suing Mississippi, claiming the state is violating federal law by failing to provide adequate community mental health services.

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Anita Lee is a Mississippi native who specializes in investigative, court and government reporting. She has covered South Mississippi’s biggest stories in her decades at the Sun Herald, including the Dixie Mafia, public corruption and Hurricane Katrina, a Pulitzer Prize-winning effort. Nothing upsets her more than government secrecy and seeing people suffer.
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